Op-Ed: Why don’t women come forward? Talking about sexual assault is excruciating and people don’t want to hear it
Does anyone remember how difficult it was to talk about sexual assault 40 years ago? I do.
I was raped in 1978, four years before Christine Blasey Ford alleges she was assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh. I was 19, on summer break after my sophomore year at UC Santa Cruz, helping my sister move across the country. Our car broke down. After the mechanic fixed it, I went for a drink with him. It was night by then and my sister and I had rented a motel room. I drank a Scotch, he drank a beer. On our way back, he swerved his truck into a cornfield. We fought. He broke a bottle of beer and held the jagged glass up to my face. I thought I would die, or be cut and disfigured, so I gave in. Then, he said, “I wouldn’t be embarrassed to take you anywhere,” as if this were a date.
Back at the motel, when I walked into the room, his friend was assaulting my sister. Trying to pin her down on the bed. This time I ran for help. Later I understood that the boys separated us to make us more vulnerable. This happened in North Platte, Neb. I can’t remember the date, though I do remember the make and model of my sister’s car—a 1974 Ford Fairlane.
We called the local police and reported the crime. Then the mechanic’s sister showed up, calling me a slut: I was wearing a T-shirt, no bra. We’d had drinks. I’d given in. I felt dirty. Scared, my sister and I fled North Platte and started driving home. Between Nebraska and my father’s house in Berkeley, I stopped only to fill up the tank, use the bathroom and drink chocolate milk. I knew my parents loved me, so I told them. The words came up and out of me: “Hello, Daddy, I was raped.” My father gasped for breath. When he couldn’t get his breath back, we rushed him to the hospital. My mother had nightmares for years. My sister never drove again. I feel responsible for all their pain.
We called the local police and reported the crime. Then the mechanic’s sister showed up, calling me a slut.
At college, I sought help, but they didn’t offer counseling to victims who’d been attacked off campus. I was sent to a crisis center two hours away. The counselor asked me why I was wearing wool in September, during a heat wave. Why, after I’d been raped while dressed in a T-shirt and wraparound skirt, was I wearing a calf-length wool dress? I stopped counseling.
Also in 1978 — again, just four years before Kavanaugh allegedly pressed his hand over Ford’s mouth to stifle her screams — the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault was established. Most student-age girls didn’t know about coalitions or crisis centers. Here’s what we knew: On the immensely popular soap opera “General Hospital,” Luke Spencer raped Laura Webber to an accompanying up-tempo dance number, “Rise.” Audiences resonated so much with the couple that ABC rebranded Laura’s rape as seduction. Then in 1981, Laura married her rapist Luke on what remains the highest rated episode in soap opera history.
It was only 20 years ago, in 1998, that Mississippi became the last state in our union to drop “lack of chastity” of the victim as a defense in rape trials — even statutory rape. Victims were required to be virgins previous to their attacks, or it wasn’t rape. I was not chaste.
By the late ’90s the only time I broached the subject of being raped was when I was so hammered the story vomited out. One guy, after I’d slept with him and drunkenly told him, said, “If you hadn’t been so easy for me, I would have raped you, too.” He said it in a throaty voice, as if this was a sexy compliment.
As recently as six years ago the subject of sexual assault was still considered taboo. I’d finally written a memoir, but when my female editor read the rape scene she said, “Rape stories don’t sell” — unless I was a movie star or had been kidnapped and held prisoner. I wanted a book deal so I deleted the story. It’s there in the blank space on page 276.
Now, on Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford will sit before the Senate Judiciary Committee and, in front of the most public tribunal imaginable, share her story of sexual assault. It’s hard enough to describe such events to family and the police, painful to tell friends, uncomfortable to reveal to lovers. To do it in front of 11 Republican men who refuse to call for an FBI investigation or subpoena the only witness, Mark Judge, is an excruciating travesty — one that we all must endure beside her.
I don’t know if her testimony, or potentially that of Deborah Ramirez or Julie Swetnick, will derail Kavanaugh’s appointment. I do know that shame distorts all of us. At a dinner party in my 20s, when the conversation turned to fears of attacks and I’d had too many glasses of wine, I suddenly found myself sobbing, “I’m a rape survivor.” The room went silent. Nobody wants to hear our bad news. As victims, we are doubly shamed. Once for the crime committed against us, and again for daring to talk about it.
Don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me that I should have kept my mouth shut 40 years ago. My family might have fared better if I had. I might not have felt like such a pariah. I thought I escaped without being disfigured. I haven’t.
If women haven’t spoken up for decades, it’s not because the assaults didn’t happen. It was not the #MeToo era. It was the era of #WhyIDidntReport. We were frightened and shamed and denied an audience. And when no one listens, then there’s no protection, anywhere, for anyone.
Gabrielle Selz is the author of the memoir “Unstill Life.”
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